Building Technical Communities

The SQLServerCentral technical forums have matured and evolved over the course of many years. They were initially stoked by the sweat and toil of a small number of experienced DBAs, including Steve Jones, who were willing to dedicate a substantial amount of their day to answering questions. Slowly, the community grew as more people took on the burden of answering questions and adding to discussions. They didn’t do it for personal recognition, just the satisfaction of helping out some fellow professionals along the way.

Until recently, I was convinced that this was the only way to grow a genuine community of users.

However, a new breed of “web2.0 community” has been emerging that aim to get anyone and everyone contributing. These “people-powered” principles have been successfully applied to customer support, community weblogs and technical Q&A sites.

Contributors often receive “peer” approval for their efforts in the form of ticks and badges, or disapproval in for the form of a negative vote (the metaphorical thumbs-down).These sites spring up overnight and before the site is even out of beta, they are a hive of activity and rapid fire responses.

It would seem that sites such as StackOverflow are so compelling that numerous experts immediately jump on board, and so the “tipping point” is reached far more rapidly than with conventional models.

There is a niggling worry, though. Whereas one can argue that everyone’s opinion is of equal value, it is more difficult to believe that expertise is so widely distributed. Recently, I’ve read about several cases of people getting misleading advice from one of the numerous user-powered medical websites that have sprung up. I’m certain that the same thing happens in technical communities, and also that the “web2.0” style ones are far more prone to it than traditional forums.

In a forum, approval or disapproval takes the form of a discussion (a thread) where you’re required to state your case clearly, and with proof, and so is subject to true peer review. You cannot correct someone else’s advice anonymously. Hitting a “tick” or “thumbs down” button requires no such effort and plays to the “herd instinct”: applaud the “leader” when others do so, and “go in for the kill” when you spot a straggler.

Although I was initially awed by the sheer interactivity of the new technical formats, I’m beginning, on closer examination, to suspect that the founders of SQLServerCentral had it right first time around. It is difficult to short-cut the long painstaking road to building a great expertise-driven community. Or am I a young fogey? I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts. As always, add your comments to the editorial blog, and the best comment will receive a $50 Amazon voucher.